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As homesteaders, we’re constantly busy and often times we focus on the “How To” of homesteading: how to grow your garden, make a certain recipe, or how to make a sourdough starter. But when we start to bring in all of these things that take hands-on time, even when we’ve gotten really comfortable with it we’re always bringing in and new things. Even when we get it under our belt and streamlined, it can be complicated and not always easy, despite it being the “simple” life.
I’m really excited to be speaking with Tracy Lynn from Simple Living Country Gal. Tracy Lynn helps folks realize their simple living dreams no matter where they call home. A simple life is no longer limited to dirt roads and pastures. She believes gardens can happen on windowsills, back porches, even rooftops and that all you need is a pot, some soil, and plenty of sunshine. Tracy lives with her husband and family on a small homestead in rural Pennsylvania where she spends her days learning to do more and rely on others less. The ultimate goal of any simple living enthusiast.
Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #240 Tips on How to Declutter Your Home & Keep It That Way of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen, and life you want for your family and homestead.
Melissa: Tracy, I’m really excited to talk to you today to get some tips, not only for my listeners and readers but for myself as well. I feel like we can always improve on simplifying our homes through decluttering and organization and with time management.
Share with us a little of your background on how you have transformed your home with that focus in mind. Then we’ll dive into your tactical tips.
Tracy: I grew up as what I like to call a “messy” person. I was just a piler. I piled papers and other things; I made it an art form of stacking my stuff, which what I thought was an organized way of putting my stuff. I call it my organized piling system, but when I had kids and got married and was running a household, I realized that this was not going to work. I was very cluttered and disorganized in the beginning; very chaotic in the way I ran my house and my kids all witnessed that. I realized I had to come up with simple solutions to not only run my entire home but to run my kitchen, to run my finances, help run the kids with their homework, to run our schedule… And by coming up with the easy ways to approach these everyday life events that could be stressful times, it’s really helped me to slow down, to catch my breath, to refocus, and just enjoy the days rather than getting stressed out by them all.
Melissa: I’m dying laughing because I do not come to organization naturally. In fact, when I was in high school, I had friends over and one of my male friends said, “Wow, I’ve never seen a girl’s bedroom be as messy as this.” That is not a compliment. And I used to say that my home isn’t dirty, but I would have areas that I would say it’s a mess, but I know where everything is. It’s my organized mess. Kind of the same thing as you were saying with your piles. I would tell myself that and believed it at the time, but it was not helpful.
Even if it was an organized mess and I thought I knew where things were, that really wasn’t true because I would then lose something or spend so much time trying to figure out where I had put something because I didn’t have these systems. I think until you’ve gone through that process where you have that before and after, but I didn’t realize the impact that it had just on my mind. When having things out, even if they weren’t in piles, my mind couldn’t rest as well. I didn’t realize it until I did get systems in place. You have a different feeling when you walk into that space and it really is clean and organized. I just felt relaxation in my shoulders and in my spine. Did you notice that too?
Tracy: Absolutely. One of the things that frustrates me more than anything is wasting time looking for things. Even though I thought I knew where something should be, it would never be where I thought it was. So running around, trying to find things and it would always happen at the most inconvenient times.
Like my kids needed to be at a game in 10 minutes and we couldn’t find their cleats. Those situations would happen so much that I knew I had to find a way to get over that part of it. But actually coming up with the system on my own was a little tricky and it took some time. When I finally got there, then I could just run with it in every aspect of our home.
Melissa: So you have one system that you’re applying to all the different aspects. Walk us through this.
Tracy: Basically the first thing I had to do because I told you I was a messy person, so I needed to find ways that didn’t’ change the fact that I was messy, but instead gave me the tools that I could still be that messy person, but yet still have a more organized and tidy home. I had to take a step back, see how I approached tasks that I did throughout my day, and then find ways to stop the messiness before it started.
For example, I would clean my family room and run the vacuum cleaner, then get done cleaning the family room. That vacuum cleaner would sit in my family room for a week before I finally put the vacuum away. I know it’s a silly example, but I was literally doing that in every single aspect. Like I’d pay the bills and I’d leave those bills laying out on the table. Or I’d make dinner and wouldn’t completely clean up after the meal. All of those things compiled onto each other to make my house just this cluttered, chaotic mess. What I had to do was find a way to shortcut those results so that they were more positive.
Now, in my family room, I keep my vacuum cleaner behind a cabinet that is in my family room. So now I can clean my family room and quickly put the vacuum away. That took care of that one issue. Paperwork would literally be strewn all over my home. I found ways to set up mail baskets in my heavily paper cluttered traffic areas such as the kitchen or my office. Inside of those baskets is where all the paper would go. When I paid my bills, I would start at those baskets, go through each of those papers and that eliminated the paper clutter in my home. By doing things in that aspect for each of my hot spots or trigger areas, it really did eliminate those situations which helped me to slow down, take a step back, and remove some of the clutter so it was easier for me to set up systems for the rest of the clutter. Does that make sense?
Melissa: Yeah, it makes so much sense. I am so with you, I have found in my long journey to where I am now, is the more clutter you have, the more it attracts. It’s like a magnet. Like when you were saying you left out the paperwork and it was in the table or leaving the vacuum out. I’ve done the exact same thing. For me, I keep coming back to clothes. If you have a really clean bedroom floor and one piece of clothing is taken off and it’s not either put in the dirty clothes to be washed or hung back up or folded, you really notice that one thing; it’s out of place. But if you have a whole bunch of things that are out of place, it’s easy to not really see them anymore.
I used to just take my clothes off late and night and didn’t want to deal with anything. I would plan to pick them up in the morning, but then morning would come and I would be busy and wouldn’t always pick them up then. So then when it came time to do laundry, I would have to sort all the clothes that were on the floor. That also stopped me from vacuuming because the clothes were in the way. I’d have to pick them up first. I have a rule now that whenever your changing your clothes or taking any clothes off it has to go either in the dirty clothes basket or it has to go back on the shelf, drawer, or closet. Nothing is allowed to stay on the floor. I was the biggest culprit. So that’s a trigger for me. As soon as I’m taking clothes off, it has to go in a spot. It is not an option to just drop it where it is.
Tracy: That’s a great piece of advice. And that’s the thing, you have to know what your triggers are so that you can better stop them before they start.
I teach people that our room reset is the absolute simplest way to reset your room and remove the day’s clutter and chaos. So you wake up to a tidy workspace, whether that be the kitchen, the family room, or the bedroom. Room resets are super simple to do. I have, what I call my favorite decluttering tool, a laundry basket and go from room to room with it. Inside that basket goes anything that doesn’t belong in that particular room. If I’m in the family room, I pick up any dishes or clothes that end up there, any toys that the kids left behind, any paperwork…It all goes right inside the clothes basket. Then I take all of the days things that are in the basket and put everything away.
In the beginning, it was a little hard for me to adopt that habit, but now, it just takes probably a good five minutes per room to reset each space. I tell you when you wake up in the morning and you walk into a pretty tidy kitchen and family room, it just starts your day off on the right foot. That’s so important when we’re all so busy and we have so many things going on and we just don’t have time to deal with the chaos as soon as we open our eyes.
Melissa: This is something you do every night then? Do you go through your whole home or just the main rooms?
Tracy: I go through the main rooms. I do my family room, kitchen, and I also do a room reset in my own bedroom. But I do that in the morning because I make the bed and put the pillows back on. So in the evening, I do the room reset in the family room and kitchen. It’s just my evening routine like it’s some people’s routine to let the dog out or make the coffee. Mine just happens to be doing the reset. It’s just something I’ve trained myself to do without even thinking.
Melissa: Basically you’re making sure that stuff doesn’t start to pile up and compile and become this huge thing. For your kitchen and family room, how long would you say on average does the room reset take?
Tracy: The family room probably five minutes. The kitchen maybe 10 minutes if I didn’t completely clean up after dinner. That’s the beauty of a room reset. You don’t have to completely clean the kitchen after a meal because you know you’re going to do that before you go to bed. If I’m really tired after I ate, I can just let things sit because I know before I go to bed I’m going to push the chairs in around the table, put the bread in the bread drawer or the napkins back in the napkin holders. Normally the kitchen takes 10 minutes but that’s really the worst-case scenario. It doesn’t really take that long.
Melissa: You know what I’ve noticed about things like that, and it can be cleaning the house or decluttering, is oftentimes, especially if it’s something I don’t really want to do or don’t enjoy doing, is that I procrastinate on it. When really, if you just dive in and do it it doesn’t take that long. Like if you have dirty dishes, really if you just jump in and wash them, unless it was a huge meal where you had a ton of people over, it’s like 10 minutes. But in my mind, I’m thinking it’s going to take me half an hour and it’s never usually that long. So I like that you tell yourself that it’s being done tonight one way or the other, but it’s a non-negotiable.
Tracy: That’s right. And I have to remind myself of the results. You know, do you want to wake up in the morning and be faced with this mess, or do I want to wake up in the morning and be faced with coffee being made and in a neat and tidy kitchen? For me, I would much rather be greeted by a tidy space. Therefore the pre-work that I do before I go to bed is definitely worth the outcome.
Melissa: The outcome…I think that’s probably the way I operate with most things in life is by telling myself to remember the outcome. Like with exercising, remember that outcome…how your going to feel when you’re done. And of course, the benefit of having more energy and being physically fit.
We’ve talked about too, once you get these systems in place, I’ve noticed and assume you have too, it naturally helps you manage your time better, don’t you think?
Tracy: Absolutely! You’re not spending time looking for things. You’re not spending time walking around things. You’re not spending time clearing a space to do a project. It absolutely does save a lot of time.
There are a few things to remember because I’m sure there are some people out there that are saying if they were to do a room reset it would take them four hours because they haven’t seen the family room floor in a month. So there is some pre-work that some people may need to do first…and that is the actual decluttering of a space. People often tell me that it’s such a big project, they just don’t have the energy to do it. I totally understand because I was there and I needed to first know what the clutter was.
You need to know what the clutter is before you can start dealing with the clutter. Some have a little harder time distinguishing exactly what the clutter is so that they can, therefore, get in there and deal with it either by removing it or putting it where it needs to be. Then they can get to the point where these room resets are an actionable thing that they can do every single day in a short amount of time.
Melissa: I have found for myself, for me to truly do an area that’s gotten out of control or continues to always be a trouble spot where things just congregate, I have to take everything out so it does take longer. But I found otherwise I was just reorganizing the same mess. So I found that I had to take everything out of the space and then go through item by item asking myself if it really belonged there, do I really need it, and then putting what was deemed ok to stay away.
So for me, I found that I do have to take everything out, which does take a lot longer, but overall it’s the only way I’ve really been able to create a lasting change in those specific areas. Do you have any tips and tricks that are different than that or any advice towards that?
Tracy: People are different types of clutter people. Life for you, you like to take everything out and sort it all in one jump and then put back the things that you want to keep in that space. For others, it’s more of a declutter as you go. So if you’re that type of person that wants to do everything in one project by taking it all out and dealing with it, then my best advice for that person is to make sure that you have ample time before you dive in.
If you have a really big project that you think is going to take all day but you don’t want to sacrifice a whole day to do it you have a couple of choices. One, You can break it down. Say you’re in the kitchen, focus on two main cabinets that you use. Or if you’re in the family room, focus on the game area of that room. You can either break it down into small projects that you can incorporate throughout your weekly schedule. Or you can give yourself a time distraction that will help you put all of your focus into that one project and really tackle it in one sitting.
Some advice that I like to give people is that you need a time distraction. What I mean by that is look at a room and estimate how long that project is going to take. For example, 20 minutes to deal with this part of the room. Instead of setting a timer for 20 minutes, a clutter or a time distraction would be five of your favorite songs on a playlist. Because a song is about four minutes so five songs would be 20 minutes. Download those songs and play them. When those songs are done, you are done decluttering. So you know you only have 20 minutes so you get in there and move.
You’re telling your mind that you mean business and you’re going to get in there and going to do it. Hopefully, both those tips really help out when you’re dealing with it in that way.
Melissa: I love that. I tend to be somebody who jumps in with both feet and arms. But not everybody does that. I love the time distraction. I’m a podcast junkie so if there’s a podcast episode that I’m really wanting to listen to then I will find a task like that and it’s like my reward…I get to listen to this podcast but I’m tying it to something that I have to do. Music is a great way too. I like the time distraction. I haven’t actually used that term before but it’s helped so much and helps make the time go faster and makes it easier for you to slip things in if you don’t have hours to spend decluttering a room.
Do you have any good tips on when you are deciding on where an item should go? I know you gave us the example with the vacuum to make it easy on yourself to keep an area clutter-free but when you’re really evaluating items to determine if they stay or do they go.
Tracy: Yes. I look at clutter a little bit differently than some other people do. For me, clutter is anything that doesn’t have a home. So as long as you can give your things a home and then keep those things in the home, then whatever is left out are things that you can sort through and either throw away, give away, or donate.
I like to distinguish things into three categories:
When you categorize each of your things into one of those three areas, then you can move onto the next step.
If it’s something you need, then give it a home in the space where it is to be used. If it is something that you use, you need to give it a home in this for it too. For example, a set of measuring cups and they’re always sitting out on the kitchen counter. You’re going to want to give it a specific home in your kitchen where you would normally use it, or at the very least, expect to find it.
Finally, anything you love. If you have mementos that you absolutely love, dishes that came from your grandmother or knickknacks that came from your aunt for example, then you want to also give it a home someplace inside your house where you can see that item and enjoy the memories that come along with it. If you have all these things that you’re emotionally attached to, you don’t want to leave them in a box in the attic where they’re going to be forgotten. You want to get things out so you can see them and enjoy the memories that come along with them. That may mean you’re removing things that you don’t love in order to make room for the things that you do love.
By giving each item in the house a specific label, you’re going to better decide if it’s something you need, use, or love. And if it’s not, then you can take it to the next step, which would be to throw it away or donate it if it still has some use left in it.
Melissa: I’ve found for myself if I don’t schedule things in then it just doesn’t get done. Do you routinely set up how often you go through a room or just once it starts to become cluttered again? Or do you do it seasonally? How do you keep on top of it and keep the systems in place? How often do you redo areas?
Tracy: Basically I declutter all the time. It’s just a part of my daily to do list. I have these visual reminders that are scattered throughout my home. I have a decorative box or basket in my family room, a bag hanging from the handle in my closet, or a bin in my bedroom sitting in the corner on the floor. As I go through my day I find things that I no longer need, use, or love, then I toss it in the nearest container. Then I am always in a mode of decluttering because it took me decades to become a cluttered mess. There’s no way to become uncluttered overnight. It is something that is slow and needs to be woven throughout your day.
It’s something that needs to be intentional, like cooking breakfast in the morning or tying your shoes before you leave the house. It’s just another habit that you want to do every day. You are constantly making decisions every time you are looking for things. The other day I was getting out a pair of socks and while I was in that drawer, I noticed four pairs I haven’t worn in probably a year. I just took them right then and there and tossed them in the bag hanging on my closet door and kept getting dressed. It didn’t take any extra time. It was woven through the habits of my day.
The clutter is slowly getting smaller as each day goes on. Another thing to remember is when you do it every day like this, in little bits and pieces, you are training your mind to see your things differently. You’re not so emotionally attached to that spatula in the kitchen. You’re better able to say, you know what, I’ve seven spatulas, I really only need three. I’m going to get rid of these four. It just makes the decision much easier to do when it’s something that you do routinely.
Melissa: As a homesteader, I’m always thinking about how I can reuse something, not being wasteful, using things up, which does have its place and can be a very good principle to follow. But on the other hand, it can also make you a huge packrat and you’re not doing yourself any good if you’re not using these things because you’re holding onto them for someday. For example, I would save clothes to use in a quilt or to remake it and found that I wasn’t doing it. Now, if you’re doing that with your items then that’s fabulous – keep doing it.
But I had to get honest with myself and admit that I’m not actually doing that with these things. I have done something similar to what you’re saying with putting things in a bag that’s going to be donated. If it’s broken or amendable, then it just goes into the garbage, unless is a fabric that can be used as a rag, then it gets cut up and repurposed as a rag. I have found that I’ve only had to go back into that bag once to pull something out that I needed to use. Now I don’t keep those bags nearly as long as I used to because I would keep them for like three months before I would donate it.
Now I keep it in the trunk of my car and every week I will take those items that are in the house and put them in the trunk. We live about an hour away from the closets donation drop facility and I usually only go down maybe once a month, so I just keep that bag in the back of the car so then I don’t forget it and that way it’s out of my house. Then as soon as I go to town I have that bag and can drop it off. I used to have bags and keep forgetting to take them with me and then they just end up being clutter themselves. So that’s my system: it’s in the trunk of the car and then anytime I open the trunk to go shopping, it’s right there as a visual reminder that I need to take it over to donate it.
I love that you’re making it a daily practice though.
Tracy: That’s something that I had to do. We’re a lot alike because I do the same thing. I have a box in my car that I constantly put things in and when I run errands on that one day a week, I make sure to stop at the donation center to drop them off. Decluttering isn’t taking things from one space to move it to another space. It is taking things completely out of the home. That is an important step that people tend to forget about. They think, okay, I decluttered my bedroom, everything’s in the mudroom. Then those things in the mudroom are getting buried under other things and before you know it, you’re decluttering again items that you’ve already spent time working on.
So taking things one step further every time you do it is going to set you up for success.
I also understand the fact of keeping things. When my family was younger, money was really tight and I couldn’t get rid of things then like I can now and I totally understand that. But you also have to remember what is going to be the bigger payoff. Is it going to be a bigger payoff to keep those toilet paper rolls to shove lint in so you can start a fire in the winter or is it going to be a better payoff to free up a little extra space in your utility closet to put other things that add more value? You have to look at the pros and cons of each item that you’re going to declutter, set a few parameters that are specific to you and your family and make decisions that will have the best outcome for everybody that’s living in the home.
Melissa: These tips are so good and I actually have some areas that I need to get in and declutter. You have definitely given me some motivation to get myself in there and do that. Any last tip that you want to leave people with?
Tracy: Just get started. The hardest part is to just get started. But once you get in there and you start seeing results, even if they’re small, don’t underestimate the power of five minutes. Take five minutes, do a quick declutter in that time and let those little successes build on each other until you can eventually set up each room one at a time to create a home you and your family will love.
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Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.